A few weeks ago one of the digital nostalgia channels was showing a black-and-white drama from the 1950s. The big grey police Wolseley, bell clanging, raced to a halt in Oxford Street and out got Superintendent Lockhart (or possibly Fabian, or Gideon) of the Yard. “Good job it’s Saturday afternoon,” he said. “Not many people about.”
Oh, those early closing days of yesteryear! All gone now. And with them soon will go Grandstand, the centrepiece of the BBC’s Saturday sporting coverage ever since the days of big grey Wolseleys – and Jim Laker, Anita Lonsborough, Stanley Matthews and Stirling Moss. The BBC has announced that the programme, started in 1958, will be phased out by 2009 – a lead time long enough to ensure “they can have a spanking 50th anniversary party on Johnny Licence Payer’s money”, as one e-mailer noted.
The corporation insists the axing is nothing to do with the collapse of its old dominance of sporting rights and coverage in the 1990s. It is, instead, all part of the BBC’s positioning for the strange digital world in which we find ourselves. I understand that. It is far better for the BBC to find new sporting directions rather than keep trying to find content to justify the continuation of the Grandstand format. And the Beeb is even planning to cling on to the signature tune, somehow. No, it’s Saturdays I mourn.
The old British Sunday may have been tedious and bizarre: the trading laws permitted the purchase of a porn magazine but not a bible. But Saturday afternoons were wonderful. All winter there was league football. All summer there was county cricket. And some weeks there was a strawberry topping: the occasional winter rugby international (never soccer – they were on Wednesday nights) and the odd summertime delight such as Wimbledon or a Test match.
The big stuff was always on BBC from the time television became established; the rest was there to be watched live. Saturday afternoon was also the time to play sport. Women did whatever women did in the 1950s: cooked, sewed or adjusted their girdles perhaps. Now shopping has taken over as the national weekend pastime, and the big match for many families is B&Q v Ikea.
There is a certain circularity to the BBC’s decision. British Sky Broadcasting has replaced the Beeb as chief sports broadcaster, and it suits its scheduling purposes to spread sport out as evenly as possible. This has gradually denuded the stock of Saturday sporting events so there is less and less for Grandstand just to report, never mind actually show. There is racing on Sunday, football takes place whenever BSkyB wants it, and no one on earth can make sense of the county cricket schedule.
There are other media victims. Very rapidly now, the multicolour collection of pink, green, blue and buff sporting papers is disappearing. The Saturday night sports editions disappeared from London decades ago, but they held their ground in the leading provincial footballing centres. Until now: killed off because so many of the clubs that sustained them hardly ever play on Saturdays.
Bristol’s Green and the Newcastle Pink have just gone. The Birmingham Sports Argus – the most impressive of the lot – is to follow imminently. Very soon now, the FT will be the only Pink ‘Un left.
I started in this business doing Saturday afternoon reports for the Northampton Green ‘Un from the town racecourse, which hadn’t seen a horse since Edwardian times but remained the headquarters for almost all the borough’s soccer and cricket teams. Most of the report and all the headlines had to be written at half-time. But I would race dutifully to the nearest phone box, and glower at anyone who had dared to occupy it at such a moment of crisis, for the satisfaction of getting the name of an 89th-minute goalscorer into the Stop Press column – even if he had hit a winner that directly contradicted what I had said in the first place.
At least I did this until the editor told me he reckoned only cretins read all this stuff, after which I lost a certain amount of enthusiasm.
On Radio Five Live, the beloved 5pm Sports Report clings on, though week after week the results sequence is denuded by the absence of any meaningful sport to report. Today should be the climax of the football season. But there is nothing happening in the top two divisions. And the first result read out is due to be Blackpool v Gillingham.
Back in Northampton, the Green ‘Un long ago turned to Pink (it was hard to get green paper, apparently) and then faded to black. The local football league battles on, but this season the Northampton Town Cricket League is not even there to be reported. It finally caved in last year – at the very peak of the Ashes boom. Not enough blokes wanted to turn out.
Where have all the players gone? Gone to Tesco, every one.